Myanmar screams

A Rohingya refugee who fled with her family from Myanmar cries after she arrives at a camp near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh. Pope Francis, who will visit Bangladesh Nov. 30-Dec. 2, has appealed for their protection of the Rohingya on several occasions, calling them "our brothers and sisters." (CNS photo / Damir Sagolj, Reuters)

As Pope Francis' trip to Myanmar at the end of November gets closer, the plight of the Rohingya people there receives more and more scrutiny.

The ethnic and religious tensions in Myanmar have been in place for decades, often encouraged by government policies, which stripped the Rohingya of citizenship. But those tensions exploded following attacks by Rohingya militants on 30 security posts Aug. 25. In response, the Myanmar military reportedly burned houses, raped women and killed more than 1,000 Rohingya. More than 420,000 Rohingya have fled across the border to Bangladesh for safety, Catholic News Service reported

On Oct. 10, the United Nations' Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights released its latest report decrying the atrocities of the Myanmar army, saying its scorched-earth campaign is a deliberate effort to drive the Muslim Rohingya out of Myanmar and prevent their return.

"Credible information indicates that the Myanmar security forces purposely destroyed the property of the Rohingyas, scorched their dwellings and entire villages in northern Rakhine State, not only to drive the population out in droves but also to prevent the fleeing Rohingya victims from returning to their homes," the report said, according to Reuters.

On Oct. 11, The New York Times published a story by reporter Jeffrey Gettleman, who traveled to the refugee camps in Bangladesh housing hundreds of thousands of Rohingya who fled for their lives.

The story recounts the horrors survivors described in disturbing detail:

Hundreds of women stood in the river, held at gunpoint, ordered not to move. A pack of soldiers stepped toward a petite young woman with light brown eyes and delicate cheekbones. Her name was Rajuma, and she was standing chest-high in the water, clutching her baby son, while her village in Myanmar burned down behind her.

"You," the soldiers said, pointing at her.

She froze.


She squeezed her baby tighter. In the next violent blur of moments, the soldiers clubbed Rajuma in the face, tore her screaming child out of her arms and hurled him into a fire. She was then dragged into a house and gang-raped.

By the time the day was over, she was running through a field naked and covered in blood. Alone, she had lost her son, her mother, her two sisters and her younger brother, all wiped out in front of her eyes, she says. ... Survivors said they saw government soldiers stabbing babies, cutting off boys' heads, gang-raping girls, shooting 40-millimeter grenades into houses, burning entire families to death, and rounding up dozens of unarmed male villagers and summarily executing them.

Refugees have recounted tales of beheadings, torture, and burning villages to the ground, the newspaper said, saying "Much of the violence was flamboyantly brutal, intimate and personal — the kind that is detonated by a long, bitter history of ethnic hatred."

Meanwhile, Aung San Suu Kyi, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and de facto leader of Myanmar, has been under intense criticism for allowing what U.N. officials have called a "textbook example" of ethnic cleansing.

On Oct. 12, Suu Kyi made a nationally televised address in which she called for peace and announced a civilian-led body to bring humanitarian aid to Rakhine State. The body will be made up of representatives of the government, the people, local and international nongovernmental organizations, U.N. agencies, the private sector and friendly nations, she said. Many praised the proposal, but others criticized it, pointing out that while she mentioned other ethnic groups, she never mentioned the Rohingya or the atrocities the nation's military committed against them.

But on Oct. 13, The Guardian reported that a close adviser to Suu Kyi, speaking anonymously but with her knowledge, said the violence has deeply affected her, but she has to tread carefully because of the precarious balance of power between her civilian government and the military junta that allows it to exist.

"She is appalled by what she has seen. She does care deeply about this. I know that does not always come across. But she really does. What was not clear to her [before now] was how to fix it, and how to give the civilian government the powers it needed," the adviser told The Guardian. "She is trying to move away from inflammatory and divisive remarks towards a coherent national solution that is civilian-led. The perilous state of the democratic transition in her country is understood."

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[Dan Stockman is national correspondent for Global Sisters Report. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.]